x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Iran's offer is not enough, but it's a place to start

Iran's new talk about a nuclear fuel swap is sadly familiar. But it should be explored, because honest negotiation is by far the best option.

The Iranian rial has lost a third of its value in recent weeks. And European Union states agreed on Friday on still more sanctions, so that many transactions with Iranian banks as small as €10,000 (Dh47,600) will soon require prior EU approval.

So it is not surprising that Iranian diplomats are again speaking of "flexibility" over the country's uranium enrichment programme. What is surprising, and dismaying, is how little actual flexibility there has been so far.

Last week, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's foreign minister, speaking to the German news magazine Der Spiegel, revived the idea of a uranium swap: Iran would consider stopping enrichment of uranium to the 20 per cent level, which can be further enriched to weapons grade (90 per cent enrichment) in a relatively short time. In exchange, someone - perhaps France, perhaps Russia - would provide the small quantity of fabricated 20 per cent fuel that Iran needs to produce medical isotopes.

It's an elegant solution, in theory. But we've been here before. The scheme was proposed by the US in 2009 and variations have been discussed as recently as this June. But Iran has balked.

Divining the intentions of Tehran is a constant challenge, but government spokesmen have always insisted - as Mr Salehi did last week - that the world must acknowledge Iran's right to enrich to 20 per cent, under the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Yet Article IV's "inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes" is subject to Article II, in which states undertake "not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons". Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa against the use of nuclear weapons, but furtive research, secret factories and opacity to inspections do not suggest that Iran has renounced the bomb. Instead, the government clings to an ambiguous weapons stance that is isolating and impoverishing the country.

How then can the world respond to this latest Iranian overture, if that's what it is? A fuel swap by itself will not satisfy western power; full inspection will also be required.

But any flexibility is better than none, and so this should not be a mere trigger for more demands. War fever - in Israel, mainly - has abated since the summer, but the current standoff is unsustainable. Sanctions, a blunt weapon at best, are penalising the whole society.

Wearily, then, the world must try once again to see if Iran is finally ready to negotiate seriously.